Hearing Health Blog

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever misplaced your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, inadvertently left them in the pocket of a sweatshirt that went through the washer and dryer?) All of a sudden, your morning jog is so much more boring. You have a dull and dreary commute to work. And the sound quality of your virtual meetings suffers substantially.

The old saying “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” applies here.

So you’re so happy when you finally get a working set of earbuds. Now your world is full of completely clear and vibrant audio, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds are all over the place nowadays, and individuals use them for a lot more than just listening to their favorite music (though, naturally, they do that too).

But, regrettably, earbuds can present some significant risks to your ears because so many people are using them for so many listening tasks. If you’re wearing these devices all day every day, you might be putting your hearing in jeopardy!

Earbuds are unique for a number of reasons

In the past, you would need cumbersome, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-fidelity listening experience. That isn’t necessarily the case now. Modern earbuds can provide amazing sound in a very small space. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone manufacturers popularized these little devices by supplying a pair with every new smartphone purchase (funny enough, they’re rather rare nowadays when you buy a new phone).

These little earbuds (sometimes they even have microphones) began showing up all over the place because they were so high-quality and available. Whether you’re out and about, or spending time at home, earbuds are one of the leading ways you’re taking calls, viewing your favorite program, or listening to tunes.

It’s that combination of convenience, portability, and reliability that makes earbuds practical in a large number of contexts. Lots of people use them pretty much all of the time as a result. And that’s become somewhat of a problem.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

Here’s the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all basically the same thing. They’re simply waves of vibrating air molecules. It’s your brain that does all the heavy lifting of translating those vibrations, organizing one kind of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

In this activity, your brain is given a big assist from your inner ear. Inside of your ear are very small hairs known as stereocilia that vibrate when subjected to sound. These are not large vibrations, they’re tiny. These vibrations are recognized by your inner ear. At that point, there’s a nerve in your ear that translates those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what lets your brain make heads or tails of it all.

It’s not what type of sound but volume that causes hearing damage. Which means the risk is the same whether you’re listening to Death Metal or an NPR program.

The risks of earbud use

Because of the appeal of earbuds, the danger of hearing damage as a result of loud noise is pretty widespread. Across the globe, more than a billion people are at risk of developing hearing loss, according to one study.

On an individual level, when you utilize earbuds at high volume, you increase your risk of:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss leading to deafness.
  • Going through social isolation or mental decline as a consequence of hearing loss.
  • Needing to use a hearing aid so that you can communicate with family and friends.
  • Developing sensorineural hearing loss with repeated exposure.

There’s some evidence to suggest that using earbuds might present greater risks than using conventional headphones. The thinking here is that the sound is funneled directly toward the more sensitive parts of your ear. Some audiologists think this is the case while others still aren’t sure.

Either way, volume is the biggest factor, and both kinds of headphones can deliver hazardous levels of that.

It’s not just volume, it’s duration, too

Maybe you think there’s a simple fix: I’ll just lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite program for 24 episodes straight. Well… that would help. But it may not be the total answer.

The reason is that it’s not simply the volume that’s the problem, it’s the duration. Think about it like this: listening at top volume for five minutes will damage your ears. But listening at moderate volume for five hours might also harm your ears.

So here’s how you can be somewhat safer when you listen:

  • Stop listening immediately if you experience ringing in your ears or your ears start to ache.
  • As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • If you don’t want to worry about it, you might even be able to change the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • If you’re listening at 80% volume, listen for a max of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn down the volume.
  • Give yourself lots of breaks. It’s best to take frequent and extended breaks.
  • Activate volume warnings on your device. These warnings can let you know when your listening volume goes a little too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to lower the volume.

Your ears can be stressed by utilizing headphones, specifically earbuds. So give your ears a break. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) develop all of a sudden; it occurs slowly and over time. Which means, you might not even acknowledge it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.

There’s no cure and no way to reverse sensorineural hearing loss

Usually, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is permanent. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear become irreparably destroyed due to noise).

The damage builds up gradually over time, and it usually begins as very limited in scope. NHIL can be hard to detect as a result. It may be getting slowly worse, in the meantime, you think it’s perfectly fine.

There is presently no cure or capability of reversing NIHL. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can reduce the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. But the total damage that’s being done, unfortunately, is permanent.

So the best strategy is prevention

That’s why so many hearing specialists place a significant emphasis on prevention. And there are a number of ways to reduce your risk of hearing loss, and to exercise good prevention, even while using your earbuds:

  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, minimize the amount of noise damage your ears are subjected to. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your environment or avoiding overly loud scenarios.
  • Use volume-restricting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Use other types of headphones. Put simply, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones once in a while. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
  • Getting your hearing checked by us routinely is a good plan. We will be able to help you get screened and monitor the general health of your hearing.
  • Some headphones and earbuds incorporate noise-canceling technology, try to use those. With this function, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without having to turn it up quite as loud.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be around loud noises. Use earplugs, for example.

You will be able to preserve your sense of hearing for many years by taking actions to prevent hearing loss, particularly NHIL. And, if you do wind up needing treatment, such as hearing aids, they will be more effective.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should grab your nearest pair of earbuds and chuck them in the garbage? Well, no. Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can be costly.

But your strategy could need to be changed if you’re listening to your earbuds constantly. These earbuds could be harming your hearing and you may not even notice it. Your best defense, then, is being aware of the danger.

When you listen, reduce the volume, that’s the first step. Step two is to consult with us about the state of your hearing today.

If you believe you may have damage due to overuse of earbuds, call us right away! We Can Help!

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The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.
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